Your Life is what you pay attention to. Where your interests or priorities are, conscious or not, are often the areas of your life that you give time. And what you’re interested in, you often make time to improve. But how do we learn to improve the areas of our life that we’re less aware of?
Sometimes we find that we’ve gone down a path in life that we didn’t mean to take, because we weren’t paying attention. Our daily unconscious habits led us somewhere we weren’t expecting.
Being conscious of what we’re doing, knowing what we want to improve is necessary (post 25 years old), to take advantage of our neuroplasticity- the brain’s ability to create and clarify neural highways in the brain. Before that we learn easily, our brains are still plastic, we are connection-tastic in the brain.
Those of you who have tried to learn a language later in life will feel the difference between the ease of remembering words, sounds, grammar. It’s still possible, it just takes more work. As we move out of childhood, narrow our interests down, we also limit brain connections. After that, if we want to learn, evolve, it has to be conscious.
How do we pay attention?
In order to shine a spotlight on something, we need to become more aware of what we’re doing.
Our sensory organs bring information in, through our sense-superhighways:
- Kinaesthetic senses
We use them together to sense where we are in space, what is around us. What (or whom) to move towards, and equally, to avoid. Our interoception is the ability to sense internally, both sensations, emotions and thoughts.
Our skin is full of nerve-endings. Nerve endings aren’t only skin deep, many of them are in great concentration in the spindle ends of our muscles. Thousands of tiny radars poised to send information back through the nerve pathways, back to the spinal column, to the brain.
That the nerves are in the muscles means that more information is sent when we move as opposed to when we are still. Hence it being easier to feel yourself in motion. We are simply made that way.
Interestingly it seems smaller movements are sent back with richer information, as if we are made for refining our sensitivity. And our hearing, our auditory system is also part of our vestibular system, your personal gyroscope, sending information about which way up you are amongst other things!
How do you bring information in?
What are you most aware of? As you read this, bring your attention to your two hands. What is the texture underneath your fingers? The temperature? What sounds are around you? What can you smell drifting towards you in the air?
How do you use your eyes?
An important question in these times of being more glued to computers than before.
Do your eyes harden and stare as if to take in visual cues before they’ve arrived, ahead of time? Or do you wait until the pictures reach your eyes?
How much of physical self are you aware of when you sit down at the computer, compared to thirty minutes later?
Try it out- stare at something, or someone and notice how it seems nearer. Soften your gaze and feel how your head sits a little more easily on top of the spine, and whatever you’re looking at seems a touch further away. Many of us literally move our head forwards as we stare. Perhaps you can feel that?
Focus inwards on the fingertips. Stiffen your eyes, harden them, as if you wanted eyes of concrete, purposefully. What else stiffens with the eyes? Your neck? your throat? Your fingers? Perhaps your chest, along with your breathing? (If you’re a musician, try this out when you’re playing a difficult passage. Does that help or hinder you?)
Then soften them, imagine your eyes as velvet feather filled cushions. Does that change the sensations under your fingers?
And zoom out- how much of your whole self can you sense playing? As I write these words, I’m following my own instruction at the computer keyboard, zooming in to feel the touch, the pressure of the fingers going downwards on the keys, feeling how they move the muscles of my hands, and wrists, and then zooming out, to include the sensation of my face, my eyes (checking in whether they’re soft or not), my whole arms, up to the shoulders, my chest, and the movements of breathing, the weight on my chair, and the contact of my feet on the cold floor. Which helps me move better, to breathe more easily? Hard eyes, or softer ones?
Specific to General: Zooming in and out
We need both. We need to be able to both zoom in, and zoom out. When we allow our peripheral vision to have a part of the action, we can literally see more around us, more in perspective. I would say the least effort in our fingers and eyes is ideal, whether focussing in or out. But we need to know what’s enough. And so often, we’re used to too much, so everything else feels floppy, loose, relaxed, feeble (to quote a student.)
But it’s not only about how we pay attention in front of a screen, the fingers on our keyboard, or our instruments, but also how we pay attention to other people around us. When we soften our gaze, more of our peripheral view is available. We can see more of the world. We can see more of other people, their edges, their stories, and take it less personally when someone else is upset. Recognise what’s our realm of action, and what’s theirs. And interestingly it turns out we’re integrating both hemispheres of the brain when we do this-focussing into the details, and out to the wider picture.
When we can feel and stay with our physical self whilst listening and engaging with other people, we model a sense of self for the other. It’s why some people are literally easier to sit next to. Next time you sit with someone and notice you’re not breathing fully, notice if the person you’re with has stopped breathing.
We can zoom in to sense ourselves, our internal emotions, and out to quantify this mirroring of both other people on us, and our effect on others. In to look at the details of our internal life, to think about what we want and value more generally. And out to see our effect on the world around us. It’s a balance.
What’s the quality of your attention?
This is important too. Do we look only at or think about problems, or think about solutions too? I was at a meeting a while ago, where one of my colleagues didn’t like something we were doing, but refused to suggest any alternatives. As if their only job was to point out problems. Despite asking, she refused to do anything other than tell us we were wrong, and should change it.
On one hand knowing what the problem is is useful, but only seeing problems as other people’s issues, doesn’t really help move anything forwards- it’s lazy thinking. One is essentially saying “Here’s the problem- you all deal with it. It’s not my problem, it’s yours.” But if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem! If you’re busy thinking of solutions, your mind is curious, one of the emotions guaranteed to help your brain work better!
Moshe Feldenkrais was a problem solver- he was an engineer as well as a physicist, and inventor. He said that true thinking leads to new action. Anything else is cerebration, a swilling around in the brain (I paraphrase a little). I think he’d think the same of this. Only concentrating on what a problem does not bring you to a solution. You also have to think of why it’s there, and how it can be solved. I was brought up with this way of thinking- my father was a chemical engineer. And lazy thinking wasn’t really allowed. (That’s a whole other story).
So do you only bring problems to the table, or do you spend time thinking of solutions? Whether the first thing you think of is the perfect solution doesn’t matter, it’s a step forwards. You can calibrate as you go. Start with a first approximation. Perfectionism and concentrating only on the problem is a surefire combination to stay treading water. So feel the imperfection of what you’re doing, and do it anyway. You can get better later.
We get better at being on stage be being there, not by only waiting in the wings: learning to be in the limelight, learning to soften, not harden, under another’s gaze, learning to breathe freely, in order to move freely in front of others. Curiosity is a muscle, it needs to be exercised, or we get habitual about the way we think, as well as move. And we’re “after flexible minds, not just flexible bodies” Curiosity on the stage can develop into courage, moving the goalposts of our comfort a step at a time.
Paying attention is the first step of any learning process. I was working with some musicians at the end of last month, thinking with them about stage presence and breathing. Breathing, or stopping the breath pays such a big part in stage anxiety and presence. Until we take time to notice what we do when we’re nervous, exactly how we breathe when we feel fear, or conversely, when we feel loved, it’s hard to take control. We feel out of control.
When we get curious about the how, then we can uncover what we do when we’re comfortable onstage, and when we’re uncomfortable, learn the trigger points, and find resources to both accept them and work on them from all the angles.
If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.Moshe Feldenkrais
In a Feldenkrais lesson the goal is to pay attention. Actually that’s the main goal, to learn to listen, with all your senses, with self-honour, with humour, to learn something about yourself. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can have choices in how to act.
If you found my writing interesting, it resonated with you in some way, or you have an opinion,I’d love to know, add a comment.
If you’re interested in trying it out, and getting involved, you can do this in different ways:
If you’re a musician, pleas join myself, Niall and Anita in our upcoming deep dive into Feldenkrais and the Power of Attention:
Our next WellMusician online course is on the 17th-18th April, 2-8pm each day.
Cost: £50 full price, £40 for ISM/MU/NUS)
StringMoves monthly workshops:
Finding Comfort in Extension
Workshop for Double Bass players
Sunday 2nd May 2-5pm (UK time)
- Discover: more effortless playing
- Strength through connection for the Left hand
- How to support your shoulders from your whole skeleton.
- Reduce tension and effort
- Integrate the ideas into practice
Whether you’re round the corner, or across an ocean, you can join us in weekly classes with students from the UK and beyond.
We’re continuing the 6 week series on Balance, vision and the Skeleton.
You’re always welcome to join, whether at the beginning, or the middle of a “segment”
If that sounds interesting, please join us. You can sign up here for the weekly Zoom link for a free trial class:
You’ll receive a short weekly email with the Zoom link for the week.
The next best thing to a regular class: weekly recordings.
(For those who would like to get to a class, but the timings don’t quite work). For more details click here:
These are either online or face to face from the 19th of April.
Please get in touch to discuss about how working together individually could help you achieve your goals